GARDEN WISDOM: Working in the Worm Factory

Worm bin -- Mark Macdonald
Worm bin -- Mark Macdonald

This is the story of how I came to be a worm farmer. It wasn’t a role I had ever envisioned myself in, but when we started selling the Worm Factory 360 vermicomposting kit last winter, I was intrigued. I was surprised how many we were selling, and so I began looking at reviews on Youtube and elsewhere. The buzz about the Worm Factory 360 seemed very positive. The manufacturer’s website had some persuasive video content on it, and they invite interested parties to request a booklet on how the system works. I requested it, and was genuinely impressed by how comprehensive it was. I began learning all sorts of crazy things about earthworms, from the fact that red wigglers were imported from Europe to the fact that they have five hearts.

Other members of my household were not so enthusiastic about keeping worms indoors, but I managed to talk this around, and eventually acquired a Worm Factory. It comes in a large cube box with a stand, four trays and lid, a “worm ladder,” an instruction manual, a DVD, a soil thermometer, a rake, a sorting bucket, and ready-to-use worm bedding: compressed coir, grit, and shredded paper. In short, the kit comes with everything but the worms. This was all very novel and new to me, so I studied the manual and watched the DVD and began assembly and preparation. But where was I going to find the worms?

The manual helpfully suggested I look up findworms.com to track down all the local suppliers. I was beginning to detect that there really was such a thing as “the worm community.” People who network with a common cause of spreading the word of vermicompost. Five suppliers came up from the search for Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, and so began a kind of surreal quest for worms. The first number I rang simply went unanswered. Then I called a place in Burnaby that “no longer sells worms.” The third number went straight to a voice mail box with a confusing message. By the end of the day we found ourselves driving all the way to Chilliwack, to Earthworks Compost Supply. Robert and Sue Crofton-Sleigh are a charming English couple that run the business out of their home. There had been a bit of a run on worms, so they were down to limited stock. Still, Robert managed to muster up half a pound of red wigglers housed in some bedding, inside a plastic bag. The Worm Factory 360 instructions recommend starting with a full pound of worms, but, I thought, beggars can’t be choosers, and we had come all this way, after all…

The Worm Factory process begins by preparing a first feeding tray. This is situated over the worm ladder, and both sit on top of the stand. The ladder helps any unfortunate worm climb back up into the feeding tray. You gradually fill the feeding tray with equal parts green matter (kitchen scraps, garden clippings) with high-carbon brown matter (shredded paper and cardboard). The feeding tray is always covered by a piece of damp newspaper, which helps to keep everything moist. The worms live in this, each one consuming its own weight in scraps every day. The papery brown matter helps regulate the moisture, but it breaks down and gets eaten by the worms, too. Once the first tray is full, a second tray is placed on top, and becomes the new feeding tray. This process is repeated until all four trays are in place, scraps always being added to the top tray. The worms are able to move up and down through the column of “soil” in the various trays.

Once all four trays are in place and full, the lowest tray is brought back up to the top, and the lid is removed. The contents of this tray are now fully broken down into rich, sweet-smelling worm castings. As worms digest food, they break nutrients down into forms that are available to plants. They enrich the food with bacteria and enzymes so that when you add worm castings to garden soil, or even houseplants, it kick starts a biological process to unlock soil nutrients. Worm castings will improve the health and vigour of any plant or crop, so they are often called “black gold” by gardeners, and they are available at a relatively high price. So if you can generate a constant, unlimited supply of them in your home, the Worm Factory starts to look pretty appealing.

Worms retreat from light, so by keeping the lid off the top tray, you can gradually remove all the finished worm castings and any worms in the tray will retreat into the lower depths of the top feeding tray. The empty tray is then washed and introduced as the new, top feeding tray – and so on. Any excess moisture falls down into the stand, and can be drained away as “leachate” through a spigot, and then used as liquid plant food.

Normally, I like to include lovely photos of gorgeous things in my posts, but I’m fairly limited here. It’s a black plastic box full of worms in a corner of my basement. It’s the room where I keep my bicycle, the deep freeze, and the cat’s litter box. There’s nothing photogenic about it, let’s face it. For me, it’s the concept that is appealing, as well as the ultimate reward of finished worm castings.

So here are some observations.

1. Perhaps because I started with only half the recommended number of worms, it took me three months to fill the first feeding tray to the point where I had to add a second one. So far, no excess moisture has drained into the stand.

2. The kit and instructions are extremely user-friendly, and it seems to be functioning as promised. But the manufacturer needs to work on some of their publicity material. For instance, they supplied us with a photo for our 2013 catalogue (page 86) that shows someone scraping large food scraps into a very clean looking feeding tray and the Worm Factory is out on their patio. In reality, this is an indoor kit – both summer heat and winter cold can jeopardize the lives of the worms. Large food scraps take ages to be broken down by the worms, but if you run them through a food processor, they break down in a couple of days. It would not be effective to add large scraps as shown in that photo. It also does not show the wet newspaper cover that is essential.

3. Red wigglers seem to love coffee grounds. If I use the little rake that is included to gently dig around, the coffee filters full of grounds always seem to be teeming with worms.

4. As thorough and generous as the instructions are, I find them misleading about the fact that there are occasional escapees. The instructions do mention that if the bedding is too dry or too sodden, or if there is too much heat or the pH goes wonky, that worms will flee. But they do not mention that even in ideal conditions, the occasional worm will go for an adventure outside the box. Once a week or so I discover an unfortunate explorer, desiccated, several feet away from the kit. I have looked at numerous reviews and online chat exchanges about this, and it seems to be an accepted reality about worm composting. So indoors, this is something to consider. Maybe it’s worth getting a wide plastic utility or storage tray to place your worm composter in, so that any adventurers are kept within. Another option would be to keep a light on at night, because the worms will not venture out into a lit room no matter how intense their wanderlust.

5. To my surprise, the worms have no trouble “walking” on the interior plastic surfaces of the composter. I routinely find them on the inside lid of the thing when I remove it to add more scraps.

6. You may find, as I did, that it’s useful to have an office paper shredder at hand. I produce the bulk of the high-carbon brown matter by shredding the free newspaper that comes to my door, as well as any un-laminated junk mail.

At the end of the day, I like the Worm Factory 360. Its developers have obviously put a lot of thought into its design, and it really does work. I’m only two trays into my wormy voyage of discovery, but so far, so good. I’ll be mercifully brief with the visuals in this post, but as always, you can click on them for a better view.

- See more at: http://www.gardenwisdom.ca/index.php/soil/working-in-the-worm-factory/#sthash.iAODdrBo.dpuf

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